Invading Privacy Rights In the Name of Protection

We all now know that the National Security Agency has been collecting our (meta)data from our wireless and Internet service providers. We can't say that we didn't see it coming, since George Orwell prophesized about Big Brother in his book 1984. In fact, Amazon sales of the book have skyrocketed over 7000% over the last week.

But now that we know they are collecting our data, is there reason to be concerned? Our leaders are poo-pooing any concern with statements that [i]ntelligence agencies were not reading personal messages, but rather information about the messages. “This is just metadata,” Senator Feinstein said at a news conference. “There is no content involved.”

It's not that simple, however, because "researchers in the field of data analysis [say that] metadata, or the information about such things as where a message came from and when it was sent, is frequently more valuable to security officials than the content of the messages. A study published in Nature last March demonstrated that just four data points about the location and time of a mobile phone call made it possible to identify the sender 95 percent of the time."

Currently, metadata is the least protected form of communication information, but some lawmakers are starting to renew the debate surrounding the PATRIOT Act, which authorized the collection of the metadata in the name of national security. "One lawmaker, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, called the surveillance programs unconstitutional and said he would organize a class-action lawsuit against the government through Internet and phone companies."

One of the overarching themes in response to the disclosure of the surveillance program is 'who cares, I have nothing to hide.' "When I hear someone say 'I don’t have anything to hide' I want to say 'that’s not the point. This isn’t about me. It isn’t about you. It’s about us.' We can’t be a free people if we are constantly watched by the state. It’s as simple as that."

"To describe the problems created by the collection and use of personal data, many commentators use a metaphor based on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell depicted a harrowing totalitarian society ruled by a government called Big Brother that watches its citizens obsessively and demands strict discipline. The Orwell metaphor, which focuses on the harms of surveillance (such as inhibition and social control), might be apt to describe government monitoring of citizens."

It might be time to pick up my dusty copy of 1984 and read about a future that is more on point than I am comfortable to admit.

NYTimes -- Bits Blog: Intelligence Agencies and the Data Deluge

NYTimes -- The Caucus Blog: Feinstein 'Open' to Hearings on Surveillance Progams

InsideHigherEd -- Ordinary Americans

The Chronicle of Higher Education -- Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have 'Nothing to Hide'


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